London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry




"THE rat, though small, weak, and contemptible in its appearance, possesses properties that render it a more formidable enemy to mankind, and more injurious to the interests of society, than even those animals that are endued with the greatest strength and the most rapacious dispositions. To the we can oppose united powers and superior arts; with regard to the other, experience has convinced us that no art can counteract the effects of its amazing fecundity, and that force is ineffectually directed against an animal possessed of such variety of means to elude it.

There are kinds of rats known in this country,—the black rat, which was formerly universal here, but is now very rarely seen, having been almost extirpated by the large brown kind, which is generally distinguished by the name of the

This formidable invader is now universally diffused through the whole country, from whence every method has been tried in vain to exterminate it. This species is about inches long, of a light-brown colour, mixed with tawny and ash; the throat and belly are of a dirty white, inclining to grey; its feet are naked, and of a pale flesh-colour; the tail is as long as the body, covered with minute dusky scales, thinly interspersed with short hairs. In summer it frequents the banks of rivers, ponds, and ditches, where it lives on frogs, fishes, and small animals. But its rapacity is not entirely confined to these. It destroys rabbits, poultry, young pigeons, &c. It infests the granary, the barn, and the storehouse; does infinite mischief among corn and fruit of all kinds; and not content with satisfying its hunger, frequently carries off large quantities to its hiding-place. It is a bold and fierce little animal, and when closely pursued, will turn and fasten on its assailant. Its bite is keen, and the wound it inflicts is painful and difficult to heal, owing to the form of its teeth, which are long, sharp, and of an irregular shape.

The rat is amazingly prolific, usually producing from to eighteen young ones at time. Their numbers would soon increase beyond all power of restraint, were it not for an insatiable appetite, that impels them to destroy and devour each other. The weaker always fall a prey to the stronger; and a large male rat, which usually lives by itself, is dreaded by those of its own species as their most formidable enemy.

It is a singular fact in the history of those animals, that the skins of such of them as have been devoured in their holes have frequently been found curiously turned inside out, every part being completely inverted, even to the ends of the toes. How the operation is performed it would be difficult to ascertain; but it appears to be effected in some peculiar mode of eating out the contents.

Besides the numbers that perish in these unnatural conflicts, they have many fierce and inveterate enemies, that take every occasion to destroy them. Mankind have contrived various methods of exterminating these bold intruders. For this purpose traps are often found ineffectual, such being the sagacity of the animals, that when any are drawn into the snare, the others by such means learn to avoid the dangerous allurement, notwithstanding the utmost caution may have been used to conceal the design. The surest method of killing them is by poison. Nux vomica ground and mixed with oatmeal, with a small proportion of oil of rhodium and musk, have been found from experience to be very effectual.

The water-rat is somewhat smaller than the Norway rat; its head larger and its nose thicker; its eyes are small; its ears short; scarcely appearing through the hair; its teeth are large, strong, and yellow; the hair on its body thicker and longer than that of the common rat, and chiefly of a dark brown colour mixed with red; the belly is grey; the tail inches long, covered with short black hairs, and the tip with white.



The water-rat generally frequents the sides of rivers, ponds, and ditches, where it burrows and forms its nest. It feeds on frogs, small fish and spawn, swims and dives remarkably fast, and can continue a long time under water."

In Mr. Charles Fothergill"s (), we find some reflections which remind us of Ray and Derham. We shall extract a few paragraphs which relate to the subject in hand.

Nothing can afford a finer illustration of the beautiful order and simplicity of the laws which govern the creation, than the certainty, precision, and regularity with which the natural checks in the superabundant increase of each tribe of animals are managed; and every family is subject to the operation of checks peculiar to the species—whatever it may be— and established by a wise law of the Most High, to counteract the fatal effects that might arise from an ever-active populative principle. It is by the admirable disposition of these checks, the contemplation of which is alone sufficient to astonish the loftiest and most comprehensive soul of man, that the whole system of animal life, in all its various forms, is kept in due strength and equilibrium.

This subject is worthy of the naturalist"s most serious consideration.

"This great law," Mr. F. proceeds, "pervades and affects the whole animal creation, and so active, unwearied, and rapid is the principle of increase over the means of subsistence amongst the inferior animals, that it is evident whole genera of carnivorous beings amongst beasts, birds, fish, reptiles, and insects, have been created for the (?) of suppressing the redundancy of others, and restraining their numbers within proper limits.

But even the natural checks are insufficient to restrain the effects of a too-rapid populative principle in some animals, which have, therefore, certain destructive propensities given to them by the Creator, that operate powerfully upon themselves and their offspring, as may be particularly observed in the natural history of the rabbit, but which is still more evidently and strikingly displayed in the life and economy of the rat.

It has been calculated by Mr. Pennant, and there can be no doubt of the truth of the statement, that the astonishing number of 1,274,840 may be produced from a single pair of rabbits in the short space of four years, as these animals in their wild state breed seven times in a-year, and generally produce eight young ones each time. They are capable of procreation at the age of five or six months, and the doe carries her burthen no more than thirty days.

But the principle of increase is much more powerful, active, and effective in the common grey rat than in any other animal of equal size. This destructive animal is continually under the furor of animal love. The female carries her young for one month only; and she seldom or never produces a less number than twelve, but sometimes as many as eighteen at a litter—the medium number may be taken for an average—and the period of gestation, though of such short continuance, is confined to no particular season of the year.

The embraces of the male are admitted immediately after the birth of the vindictive progeny; and it is a fact which I have ascertained beyond any doubt, that the female suckles her young ones almost to the very moment when another litter is dropping into the world as their successors.

A celebrated Yorkshire rat-catcher whom I have occasionally employed, one day killed a large female rat, that was in the act of suckling twelve young ones, which had attained a very considerable growth; nevertheless, upon opening her swollen body, he found thirteen quick young, that were within a few days of their birth. Supposing, therefore, that the rat produces ten litters in the course of a year, and that no check on their increase should operate destructively for the space of four years, a number not far short of 3,000,000 might be produced from a single pair in that time!

Now, the consequence of such an active and productive principle of increase, if suffered continually to operate without check, would soon be fatally obvious. We have heard of fertile plains devastated, and large towns undermined, in Spain, by rabbits; and even that a military force from Rome was once requested of the great Augustus to suppress the astonishing numbers of the same animal overrunning the island of Majorca and Minorca. This circumstance is recorded by Pliny.

If, therefore, rats were suffered to multiply without the restraint of the most powerful and positive natural checks, not only would fertile plains and rich cities be undermined and destroyed, but the whole surface of the earth in a very few years would be rendered a barren and hideous waste, covered with myriads of famished grey rats, against which man himself would contend in vain. But the same Almighty Being who perceived a necessity for their existence, has also restricted their numbers within proper bounds, by creating to them many very powerful enemies, and still more effectually by establishing a propensity in themselves, the gratification of which has continually the effect of lessening their numbers, even more than any of their foreign enemies.

The male rat has an insatiable thirst for the blood of his own offspring; the female, being aware of this passion, hides her young in such secret places as she supposes likely to escape notice or discovery, till her progeny are old enough to venture forth and stand upon their own energies; but, notwithstanding this precaution, the male rat frequently discovers them, and destroys as many as he can; nor is the defence of the mother any very effectual protection, since she herself sometimes falls a victim to her temerity and her maternal tenderness.

Besides this propensity to the destruction of their own offspring, when other food fails them, rats hunt down and prey upon each other with the most ferocious and desperate avidity, inasmuch as it not unfrequently happens, in a colony of these destructive animals, that a single male of more than ordinary powers, after having overcome and devoured all competitors with the exception of a few females, reigns the sole bloody and muchdreaded tyrant over a considerable territory, dwelling by himself in some solitary hole, and never appearing abroad without spreading terror and dismay even amongst the females whose embraces he seeks. In this relentless and bloody character may be found one of the most powerful and positive of the checks which operate to the repression of this species within proper bounds; a character which attaches, in a greater or less degree, to the whole Mus genus, and in which we may readily perceive the cause of the extirpation of the old black rats of England, Mus rathus; for the large grey rats, having superior bodily powers united to the same carnivorous propensities, would easily conquer and destroy their black opponents wherever they could be found, and whenever they met to dispute the title of possession or of sovereignty.

When the young rats begin to issue from their holes, the mother watches, defends, and even fights with the cats, in order to save them. A large rat is more mischievous than a young cat, and nearly as strong: the rat uses her fore-teeth, and the cat makes most use of her claws; so that the latter requires both to be vigorous and accustomed to fight, in order to destroy her adversary.

The weasel, though smaller, is a much more dangerous and formidable enemy to the rat, because it can follow it into its retreat. Its strength being nearly equal to that of the rat, the combat often continues for a long time, but the method of using their arms by the opponents is very different. The rat wounds only by repeated strokes with his fore-teeth, which are better formed for gnawing than biting; and, being situated at the extremity of the lever or jaw, they have not much force. But the weasel bites cruelly with the whole jaw, and, instead of letting go its hold, sucks the blood from the wounded part, so that the rat is always killed.


[] Bewick"s History of Quadrupeds, 1790, 354 et seq.

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 Title Page
Chapter I: The Destroyers of Vermin
Our Street Folk - Street Exhibitors
Chapter III: - Street Musicians
Chapter IV: - Street Vocalists
Chapter V: - Street Artists
Chapter VI: - Exhibitors of Trained Animals
Chapter VII: Skilled and Unskilled Labour - Garret-Masters
Chapter VIII: - The Coal-Heavers
Chapter IX: - Ballast-Men
Chapter X: - Lumpers
Chapter XI: Account of the Casual Labourers
 Chapter XII: Cheap Lodging-Houses
Chapter XIII: On the Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis
Chapter XIV: London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men
Chapter XV: London Omnibus Drivers and Conductors
Chapter XVI: Character of Cabdrivers
Chapter XVII: Carmen and Porters
Chapter XVIII: London Vagrants
 Chapter XIX: Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men